What price is Ankara willing to pay to ensure that it remains on the US's good side? Gareth Jenkins reviews reactions to Turkey's decision to open its airbases to the US
US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz visited Ankara last week and received a pledge that Turkey would open its airbases and ports to US forces in the run-up to Washington's expected military campaign against Iraq in early 2003. In return the US has offered to spend what officials from President George W Bush's administration describe as 'hundreds of millions of dollars' upgrading Turkey's military facilities, although they insist that the improvements will have no impact on the timing of any strike against Baghdad.
Initially, Wolfowitz's visit triggered conflicting signals from Ankara, raising questions about the policy, authority and the competence of the government of the pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (JDP), which took power at the beginning of November. After meeting with Wolfowitz, Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis declared that, provided the campaign was authorised by the UN, Turkey would allow the US to use its military bases to launch an attack. Hours later the office of Prime Minister Abdullah Gul issued a statement that no such decision had been taken. But privately Turkish officials have confirmed that Ankara will open both its bases and ports to the US.
"This isn't really a matter on which the government will have the final say anyway," commented one official. "The ultimate decision will rest with the military. But, whatever they may say in public, even the politicians know that we don't really have any choice. We need US support both in foreign policy and in the event we have to borrow more money from the IMF."
But there is also little doubt that the vast majority of Turks are vigorously opposed both to Washington's apparently implacable determination to launch a military strike against Iraq and to allow US forces to use Turkish facilities. Last week the US-based Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press released the results of its Global Attitudes Survey for 2002. Only 34 per cent of the Turks questioned believed that the US was planning to attack Iraq because it genuinely believed Saddam Hussein was a threat to world peace, while 53 per cent thought that Washington wanted to take military action as part of its "war against Muslim countries that it sees as unfriendly". In general, only 30 per cent of Turks had a favourable view of the US, down from 55 per cent in 2000, while an overwhelming 83 per cent were opposed to the US using Turkish facilities in any military campaign against Iraq.
But such findings are unlikely to sway the Turkish generals who will make the final decision on the extent of Ankara's support for a US strike against Iraq. The Turkish military's main fear is that the Iraqi Kurds will wait for the Americans to get rid of Iraqi President Hussein and then declare a breakaway Kurdish state in the north of the country.
"If the US puts troops into northern Iraq as part of a campaign to get rid of Saddam, the Kurds could declare an independent state and we wouldn't be able to do anything about it," said a source close to the military. "We can't rely on the Americans to stop them. The only way we can do that is to go in with them and have our troops on the ground to make sure that the Iraqi Kurds don't try anything."
Turkey already has 5,000 soldiers permanently stationed in northern Iraq to monitor the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK), and the former Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which still has several thousand militants under arms in camps along Turkey's mountainous border with Iraq and Iran.
But the prospect of the Turkish military presence in northern Iraq being increased has also ignited neo-Ottoman expansionist dreams amongst Turkish nationalists. Few have ever accepted the inclusion of the oil-rich northern Iraqi provinces of Mosul and Kirkuk in Iraq rather than Turkey during the break up of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Many openly argue that, in return for support for the US military campaign against Saddam Hussein, Washington might be prepared to turn a blind eye to Turkey establishing a de facto protectorate in northern Iraq.
Last week Wolfowitz attempted to quash such ambitions, telling the Turkish daily Hurriyet that the US was determined to ensure the oil fields in northern Iraq remained in Iraqi hands.
"Our aim is to preserve Iraq's integrity and not have its resources cut off and taken by us or Turkey or another outside force," he said.
But Turkish nationalists remain optimistic.
"I am against America attacking Iraq," said Ahmed, a 26- year-old taxi driver. "But if they do, we will gain more by going in with them than by staying outside. At the very least we can go and clean northern Iraq of KADEK; and it would be only fair if, in return for our support, the Americans let us have access to some of the oil. After all, Mosul and Kirkuk should really belong to Turkey anyway."